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7 July 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

If you want to go to university, you’re better off poor in London than rich anywhere else

Reports show that London schools are outperforming the rest of the country. And it’s not just London - the “city effect” is improving results in Birmingham and Manchester too.

By Haf Davies

Moving to London to escape a childhood of rural poverty, English folklore’s Dick Whittington traded the countryside for the capital hoping to make his fortune. After a meagre country upbringing, he flourished in the city where “the streets were paved with gold” and became Lord Mayor of London three times. Despite how, over recent decades, such rags to riches stories have been damaged by the reality of poverty and deprivation in Britain’s inner-cities, the Department of Education’s latest statistics suggest that Dick Whittington might have had the right idea after all.

Recent reports show that London schools are outperforming the rest of England. Sixty one per cent of inner-London sixth form students go on to university, as opposed to a 53 per cent national average. London’s success is even more striking when it comes to students eligible for Free School Meals: 63 per cent of poorer Londoners go on to higher education, a higher percentage than that of richer students in any other region. Due to “the London effect”, there’s a better chance of achieving 5 GCSEs at C-A* in Croydon than in Cornwall, and if you’re in a state-school and want to go to university, you’re better off poor in London than rich anywhere else.

And London is not the only city success story. The NS’s David Kirkby writes that, despite “major disparities” remaining, there is a “pattern of renewal” in the demographics of England’s major cities. Figures show a similarly optimistic pattern in education. On investigating London’s astounding GCSE results, a governmental summary states: “Similar improvements, though slightly smaller and later, can also be seen in Birmingham and Manchester.” The London effect is the beginning of a “city effect”.

While there is still an attainment gap between national and regional capitals, the gap between cities and the rest of the country is growing at an accelerated pace. Figures show fewer sixth form students to be entering higher education in smaller cities, like Portsmouth (28 per cent), and towns, like Swindon (33 per cent). The geography of educational deprivation is fragmenting. London, Birmingham and Manchester surge even further ahead at GCSE, where students eligible for free school meals are more successful than anywhere else, largely due to increased attainment in primary school. Clearly, city schools still require improvement, and the streets of England’s inner-cities are still far from Dick Whittington’s golden pavements – but in terms of education, they are outshining everywhere else.

There are many reasons for their success, from romance to racial diversity, to how cities are drawing graduates, teachers and pushy parents. However, the root of the problem lies deeper than the actions of any individual group in society. Each group shares a common characteristic: ambition. Be they the middle class driven by expectation, or recent immigrants driven by necessity, the origin of urban academic success is that cities attract the aspirational. As the social and financial hubs of the country, cities have a natural appeal for the ambitious. Aspiration is built into the very architecture – with high-rises, as with high-flyers, the sky’s the limit.

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This leaves poorer students in less urban areas at the greatest risk of falling through the attainment gap. Fiona Rawes, Director of Community Impact at Teach First, believes that “for many poorer children living outside of cities, an absence of opportunity and aspiration puts an end to ambition at too early an age.” Given that students surrounded by fewer examples of scholarly success have fewer opportunities to experience its benefits, and considering that many live “against a backdrop of long-term unemployment and persistent underachievement”, academic attainment can seem understandably irrelevant to life outside of the classroom. However, Rawes remains hopeful: “A culture of aspiration is hard to maintain … but it is not impossible.”

The attainment gap is a product of a cultural difference between the city and the country, and so finding an effective legislative solution is difficult. However, hope comes in that the attainment gap has provided an impetus for collective social action on both a local and national scale. The revealed influence of primary education on GCSE results validates the work of regional initiatives already in existence, such as ARCh Oxfordshire, a network of volunteers teaching literacy to struggling students in local primary schools. On a national scale, the Fair Education Alliance, an alliance of 25 organisations including Teach First, Barnardo’s and Save the Children, was launched 20 June 2014. The FEA is committed to collectively finding long-term solutions to this “stagnating map of educational inequality” from primary school through to university. If these, and other collective efforts are successful, there remains a chance that Dick Whittington will be able to stay at home.